Content Warning: This article discusses experiences of anxiety, depression, and suicide survival, which may be triggering for some readers.
Multidisciplinary artist Beth Leigh is one of those people who looks lit from within. Her thousand-watt smile and sunny laugh are irresistibly infectious. Conversation with Beth is almost a musical experience, and her “acrylic soul” painting style vibrates with chromatic energy. Her artwork radiates joy, but as a piece pulls you in closer, the brushstrokes begin to tell a story of a time in Beth’s life when vibrance fell under deep shadow. The way these themes dance across Beth’s canvases empowers her to start dialogues around mental health where they’re critically needed, particularly within communities of color.
In Beth's words, “Art can be the vehicle to show you the spectrum, if you will, of mental illness, and the spectrum of how you can receive assistance for healing.”
Beth’s battle with anxiety and depression is not only a story of survival, but it’s one that undermines mental illness stereotypes. Beth grew up in Greensboro, NC, in a tight-knit family that supported her precocious creativity. Mental health awareness was a real thing in her home, and Beth’s mother frequently reminded her high-achieving daughter to take breaks to avoid burnout. But after leaving for college in the vastly different landscape of Rochester, NY, Beth describes falling into a “funk.” Treating it as seasonal affective disorder or just plain homesickness didn’t help. Looking back, Beth recognizes the onset of a depressive disorder.
She powered through her undergraduate degree, finishing a whole year early, and dove into the life of a bright, vivacious, career-minded woman in her early twenties. But her symptoms worsened. Beth started to feel intensely irritable. Things she loved, like going out dancing, stopped holding interest. Maybe I’m stressed out about work, she told herself. Maybe you’re just growing up, others told her.
When a friendly stranger struck up a conversation with Beth in the supermarket one day, Beth realized something was really wrong.
“We Southerners speak to everybody; we’ll make friends with a wall,” she jokes. “But it hurt me to speak back. It was actually physically painful to speak back to this person.”
Her unchecked anxiety continued to manifest in distressing symptoms: Beth’s hair began to fall out in clumps. Vomiting attacks, sometimes hourly, made it nearly impossible to get through a workday. The Thanksgiving holiday found Beth completely drained from the physical onslaught of a mental illness she didn’t know she had. Surrounded by extended family, Beth says she felt like “a shell of a person.”
“I just knew I was tired of throwing up. I was tired of my hair falling out. This had gone on for a year or more, these feelings of not knowing who I was, and it was so painful to wake up. It was painful to get in the shower—a physical pain. That’s the part that sometimes people don’t understand: Depression hurts. … My body would just ache if I did anything. Moving from the bedroom to the living room to watch TV hurt. It all hurt, and I was tired of hurting. So I decided that I did not want to live any longer.”
But the morning after she swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and narcotics, Beth woke up. She was surprised, disoriented, and angry—and her mother was knocking on her door. Beth remembers trying to “play it cool” as her mom helped her catch up on the laundry, but tears came anyway, followed by a confession of her intense mental health struggle.
Beth recalls her mom’s words of comfort: “She said, ‘You need to go talk to someone … or else you’re going to get to a place where you feel like you don’t want to live anymore, and you don’t want to get to that place.’ And I explained to her, ‘I’m already there, and—it’s already happened.’”
By opening up to her mother, Beth opened the door to mental health recovery. She let her mom dress her in warm winter clothes, like she used to when Beth was a little girl. Then, “She led me out of my apartment, she locked my door, she led me down the stairs, put me in the car, and took me to the hospital, and we never turned back.”
That holiday weekend cracked the door for something else to re-enter Beth’s life: her art.
“I didn’t want to draw,” Beth says of her life after college and before recovery. “I didn’t feel like there was anything left in me to draw. … Paintbrushes—it’s odd, thinking back on it—were heavy. The weight of them was like picking up a shot put.”
Beth’s support system kept putting gentle pressure on that door: Her closest friends made repeated inquiries into the whereabouts of her old sketchbook. Her mom surprised her with a new box of pencils. Beth says she just looked at them for a few months, until one day, she picked one up and simply doodled. The resulting squiggly lines and stick figures developed into a commitment to draw every day.
“Over time, it became easier and easier. As I lived, and healed, and found joy in breathing, and seeing things, and hearing things again, it was easy for me to then draw again, and then paint—because I was experiencing life.”
Above: "My Emotions," a painting by Beth Leigh (FrankLeigh Art)
An essential part of Beth’s recovery was confronting the reasons she hadn’t reached out for help before reaching a point of crisis.
“I began to realize that my journey wasn’t unfamiliar. It just hadn’t been talked about, I guess, in layman’s terms. … There’s this taboo, a stigma attached to it. … But then, the stigma and taboo get even higher when you start talking about people of color.
“There’s this narrative, this myth of the strong black woman who can ‘take it all.’ And that myth is born out of slavery itself. That narrative is born out of a woman who’s been beaten and raped to the point where the world is no longer available to her, so she can take anything. That means you’re not allowed to be weak, because you’re chattel; you’re not allowed to feel, because you’re less than human. When you get to the root of that narrative, you understand how deadening it is.”
As Beth grew more comfortable talking about mental illness with others, she observed the healing power of the light she shed on mental health issues, and how the light reflected back into her own soul. Her world had returned, which meant her art had returned. And now, it had a purpose.
“When I look at my community, especially in communities of color, there’s tons of music, there’s poetry, there’s art. And that art tells a story. A lot of times, it will tell you of the depression, it will tell you of the oppression, it will tell you of all those things. But rarely do we ever take that art and use it for our healing.”
Above: "Lady Blues," a painting by Beth Leigh (FrankLeigh Art)
This was the catalyst for FrankLeigh Art, Beth’s platform for supporting mental health awareness and suicide prevention. The first FrankLeigh Art show opened in December of 2015, and to Beth’s astonishment, every painting sold. What she found even more gratifying, however, was the space her artwork held that night.
“More people were apt to ask questions because it was a non-sterile environment. They were more willing to talk about what they had been dealing with, or their child or spouse, because they were in a space that was comfortable for them. Art can provide that space. Art can give you that sense of understanding. I say that because art is whatever you make it to be. You can give three artists the same word, and they’re going to paint three different things. Conversely, I can have the same painting on the wall, and three people will walk up to it and see different things. I want that to be the vehicle, the conversation that leads into mental health.”
Beth sees her role as a mental health advocate as more than a conversation starter. When those conversations happen, she takes responsibility for having resources readily available if someone says they need help.
“Advocacy is being so enthralled in something you're passionate about, you want to make sure whoever comes and talks to you about it leaves with more information than they ever wanted," she says with a laugh.
Mental Health Mugs is blessed to have Beth’s support from the beginning. The ninth person to order a mug, Beth reached out soon after to share an incredible story. When Beth brought her new “Mental Health Matters” mug to work, it sparked a conversation about someone who desperately needed support. And Beth was ready to deliver, proving that the conversations she wants to start have life-saving power.
"The mug paid for itself a million times over the first time I pulled it out of the box and used it at work," she says. [Read the full story here.]
Beth’s artistry has rekindled into a glorious blaze that’s set to light up the mental health community. There’s an apparel launch on the horizon, with a portion of the proceeds going to a North Carolina mental health nonprofit. As if Beth’s talents weren’t prodigious enough, she’s also a poet. Poetry stayed with Beth throughout her struggle and recovery, and a collection coming out this summer will showcase the poems of her journey. She’s calling it The Butterfly Life.
"It will be a story that is written poetically--an epic, if you will,” Beth says. “These poems are going to take you on a journey that allows you as a reader to pull from it, reflect, and hopefully point you in the direction to get assistance if you need it."
Beth’s also applying to school to become an art therapist. “I am marrying my passion and my purpose,” she says, “and I couldn't be more excited about that." Consider that excitement seconded!
If you see parts of your story reflected in Beth’s, she has three things to tell you:
"One: It's okay to say I need help. Two: It is okay to receive help. And three: It is okay to share your story about the help you received. That's the only way we're going to move forward."
Follow Beth Leigh on Instagram @frankleighart, and view her artwork online at www.frankleighart.com.
Want a mug like Beth's? Browse our Conversation Starters collection below, or shop the full store.